Naut Humon, Recombinant Media Labs Explore Limits of Sight, Sound

Johnny Ray Huston August 22, 2006

Talk with Naut Humon for only a few minutes, and you’ll end up hearing some great quips. “I wish there were more domes and buildings of unusual architecture,” he says, discussing the typical audiovisual limits of movie and music theaters. “We live in a world of rectangles and almost squares.”

Maybe so, but Humon is outside the box: through Asphodel Records, he’s exploring the outer limits of sound’s spatial properties, and through Recombinant Media Labs, he takes that exploration even further, via what he concisely describes in layman terms as “a facility for the research and development of surround cinema” where “seats are optional [so that] audiences can often roam around or be seated on the floor.”

Earlier this month, visitors to Recombinant could take in live performances by Ryoji Ikeda, whose “datamatics [ver1.0b]” has helped further that research. Featuring cover art comprised of bar codes, Ikeda’s recent album “Dataplex” constructs oft-beautiful rhythms from computer malfunctions — the final track is even explicitly designed to mess with a CD player. But to hear Humon tell it, that recording is just one small level of Ikeda’s many-tiered data manipulation, which reached its height at his Recombinant shows.

“He puts your head inside the computer and manifests a visual stimulus for it,” Humon says, describing Ikeda’s show. “He has you deal with this data saturation on a much more vibrant, tactile level through detailed visual references. People like him challenge [the] perfection [associated with computers] by using material in a different way than an iPod or home computer does. For some people, this has a pull, and for others, it’s off-putting. I like the controversy it generates.”

Based on Brannan Street alongside Asphodel (which began as a New York-based private label in 1993), Recombinant Media Labs offers a multi-speaker array where an artist-in-residence can use between two and sixteen channels of discrete sound. “We’re not here just to make films or concerts or soundtracks or CDs,” says Humon, when discussing the relationship between the label and Recombinant. “The idea is to create experiences which are specific to this space.”

Certainly, Recombinant lends itself to auditory explorations that might scare away museums — even those currently riding the sound installation bandwagon. “We have multiple transducers beneath the floor so you can sculpt the bass or low-end in different ways,” Humon explains. “Someone can compose not just for loudness or amplitude, but for vibration and the way it comes up through the floor and effects your body. You can go from extreme power to something delicate.” A specialist in such low-end sculpting, the Finnish duo Pan Sonic, will be visiting Recombinant for some shows in late September.

Many of the artists passing through (or digging deep into) Recombinant in recent years have been traveling back and forth between audio and visual outer regions, often fusing them. Take Skoltz Kolgen, a male-female duo and self-described “plurimedia work cell” from Montreal, who recently performed some works in the Bay Area for the first time. “Like Ryoji [Ikeda], they deal with graphics and manipulation of computer software, but the outcome of their work gravitates to certain themes,” says Humon. “They did a show called “asKaa” that creates this virtual botanical garden which is rendered out so they are creatures living and dwelling in this ambient environment and you can join them. They incite you to come in and participate within this environment — you don’t just watch it as a tableau.”

Other examples of audiovisual trailblazers who’ve found a temporary Bay Area base at Recombinant include filmmaker and sometime Mille Plateaux recording artist Thomas Koner (who, according to Humon, “combined sit-down cinema and stand-up music” in a recent Recombinant show), and avant-turntablist and movie musical montage wizard Christian Marclay (from whom Recombinant has commissioned a piece called “Gestures”).

Another artist-in-residence exploration has formed the basis for an upcoming release that will be put out by Asphodel. Along with collaborators including Masako Tanaka and filmmaker Michelle Silva, Humon is putting together a DVD built from a show called “Multiple Otomo,” in which Otomo Yoshihide and Humon performed live next to video screens featuring various depictions of Yoshihide. Last year, Silva showed me some excerpts from the DVD, close-up depictions of Yoshihide’s turntable manipulations that featured striking, near-abstract use of darkness and vivid primary color. While Yoshihide’s excellent soundtrack work for Shunichi Nagasaki’s “Heart, Beating in the Dark” (not to mention his contribution to “Canary,” the latest film by the criminally underrated Shiota Akihiko) has gone unheard in the Bay Area, Recombinant has given him the attention and space he deserves.

Humon is involved in innovative projects, but he’s refreshingly skeptical about the technology-for-technology’s-sake madness that sometimes runs rampant through the Bay Area (not to mention the recent slave-like local mania for one visiting art star). Noting that an artist such as Ikeda “brings warmth of the cold shoulder of the digital referendum,” he goes on to point out just one of many current paradoxical cliches: “A lot of what digital is trying to do these days is replicate tape or vinyl through bit rates so you can get tape saturation. We’re trying to use a digital medium to emulate what was best about the analogue world. I still think the superior medium is the 45rpm vinyl record that goes on for ten minutes a side.”

Not surprisingly, this acute sense of irony about “innovation” could only come from someone with an acute appreciation for past trailblazers, such as Stan Schaff of the SF-based “2001”-by-way-of-1968 (or 1965) Audium, a site whose crystallized ’60s and ’70s stereoscopic wonder inspires a sense of kinship. “I guess we’re a modern version [of Audium], because Recombinant isn’t just audio, it’s visual, and also a world of tactile dimension,” says Humon. “We have to remember that multiple speakers and multiple projectors have been around for decades and decades.” Accordingly, another upcoming Recombinant performance (in conjunction with V. Vale and RE:Search) features Jean-Jacques Perrey, a tape loop pioneer whose recordings with Moog king Gershon Kingsley as Perrey and Kingsley retain a great sense of humor and pleasure today.

Still, it’s performances such as Skultz Kolgen’s “Fluux Terminal” that interact deeply with Recombinant as a unique space. “The divide the room into two halfs, these personalities in digital form having conversations and sharing tensions and releases with each other – it’s sort of a bipolar thing,” Humon says, describing the piece. “The language you use for going into a movie theater has to be changed because something like this is much more performative. They work with real time and infinite time in variable fidelities.”